January 23, 2017

Head Girl. High achiever. Destined for Oxford.

These were all labels that were attached to my student identity by my (highly academic, all-girls) school in the autumn of 2015.

What the school didn't know? That I was experiencing extreme depression and anxiety.

After years of experiencing recurrent depressive episodes and relentless anxiety, I had internalised the nuggets of stigmatising 'advice' and 'encouragement' I had been fed over the years, such as: 'It's only hormones!' 'What do you have to be sad about, you're clever?' and 'You'll grow out of it.'

By the time I was 17, then, I had become a highly introverted, ashamed and mute sufferer of mental health problems. This did nothing to complement my role as Head Girl, as I had become obsessed with fulfilling my conception of the strong, inspiring female role model that the younger students would idolise, in which 'mentally ill' had no room in its formula. I was extremely reluctant to talk about, let alone seek help, for what I was experiencing, believing that if I accepted that I had a problem I was weak and, essentially, worthless.

The Meaningful Conversation Takes Place

My form tutor at school could see that something deep was troubling me, and repeatedly asked if I was okay, to which I would employ a series of rehearsed excuses such as 'I'm just tired!' or 'just feeling a little stressed' so that I wouldn't have to accept or reveal what I was experiencing and how I was feeling.

(The fact that people have to make up excuses for their mental health due to shame, embarrassment or fear is yet another indicator of the stigma surrounding mental illness.)

My form tutor, after detecting that I wasn't well, was the first person to tell me that having a mental illness doesn't make you a failure. She told me that if anything, I was a more realistic role model to the girls junior to me at school through being human, and that's what our struggles do - they make us human. This was the first time in years that a) I had been spoken to directly about my poor mental health and, most importantly, b) that I shouldn't be ashamed or feel any less of a person for it.

It was my form tutor's words of strength and caring words of encouragement that gave me a voice, both to speak up about my problems and become a mouthpiece for challenging stigma for others. If it wasn't for this conversation, I would never have started the road to recovery and be where I am now: in a place of unashamed honesty. If it wasn't for this conversation, I would not have pursued my passions of campaigning to reduce stigma.

Recovery is a very lengthy, continuous process, but without this conversation I would not have taken the first step towards a great future. Through listening and caring, and speaking kind and informed words, you have the power to give somebody their worth back and allow them to live the life that they deserve, free from the burden of a self-stigmatising view.

You don't have to be an expert to talk about mental health - you just have to care.

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.


Very Moving

Dear Sophie, I found this blog very moving. You are very honest, and that is inspiring. All the very best on your recovery journey :)Kir


I just thought that I should maybe point out, that, presumably, on the fourth line, of the fourth paragraph, presumably the subject was talking about her "perception" rather than, (as perhaps maybe perceived/ or perhaps conceived as a slightly comical Freudian Slip): her "conception".

You can survive mental issues!...

I understand what you write in this article...I have anxiety, depression, and PTSD...I know you can survive and stay "sane", whatever that word means... BJ Rae, Children's writer, Near A River

Thank you so much

The situation you just described is exactly where I am now. When I started reading I burst into tears because I never would have thought that someone could ever begin to imagine how I'm feeling. The part about the form tutor in particular touched me because I told mine a little while ago how I've been feeling and he was really supportive. My name is Emmanuella, I am 15 years old. I've recently become a prefect and I've been hearing things like ' destined for Oxford ' for as long as I can remember. When people describe me one of the first things they mention is 'she's really smart'. People think I'm really confident because I can speak in front of crowds with ease. People think I must be perfect because I have good grades and am a teacher's pet. Even my own mother thinks I 'look fine'. The truth is that I've been having symptoms of depression for almost a year now and the longer I try to cover things up the worse things get. It started off with "feeling bad" but has progressed to not being able to get out of bed. I'm reluctant to tell my doctor because I'm afraid of stigma. Just before I came to your blog I was reading about mental health discrimination in the work place, and how employers quickly disregard applications if a person has had a history of mental health problems (especially depression). I was about to look at articles regarding people with mental health problems being rejected from universities and colleges. Thank you so much, this means so much to me. How can I combat stigma as well? I'm tired of being afraid that someone will find out, it even makes me avoid people. (I used to be very social ) Some days I just want to tell the nearest person, other days I want to hide under the table while the person behind me makes depression jokes and jokes about self harming. (I wonder if they would stop if they knew what was going on in my head.) I'm probably the last person anyone in my social circle would think has a mental illness (but then there are the people who may say that's why she's the way she is, normal people aren't like that'). It regularly makes me beat myself up for feeling this way, it also makes it hard to tell people because I'm immediately met by a stream of 'get over it' 'others have it worse' 'what are you sad about, *insert long winded explanation of why persons problems are bigger than mine and my problems are insignificant*' 'All teenagers get mood swings' And the worst one; 'you read too much it's all in your head'

Fear, and destiny...

Big hug for you Emmanuella. Nice name, too, whether it is your real one real or not... OK, basically, our culture obviously demands as much as possible. We live in a fairly harsh, no, often-brutal capitalist culture that has one ethic and one only: it rewards only a race to the bottom in living standards. In the sense of survival of the fittest via the trial of STRESS. You have a choice to reject this and live with the consequences of reduced status in the eyes of the system, or take the risk that you may do yourself permanent serious mental health damage by continuing to push yourself too hard. Most of the time, the system has indoctrinated people not to have empathy, even family members, because they imagine it's either push yourself brutally-hard and reap the benefits and status, or suddenly you'll end up homeless, or something extreme. I say neither extreme is any more attractive than the other, if one looks at it from a humanist, quality-of-life perspective. Material things and status in the eyes of others aren't worth that much (my personal belief, based on the eyes of others being attached to some pretty callous and ignorant minds at the best of times - with some lovely exceptions but statistically few in OUR society, possibly due to the nasty people at the top of it with the most infuence and power to get what THEY want (including a system where everyone competes for a rigged share of the wealth... thus has to work unnaturally-hard for it on average... which may be a root cause of mental health problems that don't exist in OTHER societies elsewhere in the globe - although few are the ones untouched by the centralised world banking system, for good or ill...). People in our culture are so intitutionalised to the way things are HERE, that they assume it has to be that way, as if this system is the very laws of physics itself! Pretty deluded, EVEN if we haven't made a better system YET, or perhaps even can't. I'm not an economist to really judge, but I have some brutal mental health problems for decades, and had to ask myself how it all worked in a cause-and-effect sense. Anthropology becomes a very interesting subject, as does group psychology and evolutionary psychology. Orwell is also worth reading re cognitive dissonance. You make your own mind up and world-view. You're probably more intelligent than me, but intelligence is just a form of POWER at the end of the day. It's what one uses it for in this world, that counts and distinguishes you.

I felt like this too

This is a very moving piece to read and very well written. I can empathise with this as when I was 17 years old I was top of my class, grade A's going to move to Spain for university and I put so much pressure on myself I walked out of my Spanish exam. The night before I was shaking and had a panic attack and did not know what was happening to me. "What are you doing lizzie ur the cleverest in the class why can't you go into the next exam" I was in tears and didn't know why. This triggered a series of events, an inpatient stay in a children's hospital and now aged 26 I finally am ready to speak about my experience and understand in order to move forward so I can relate to ur writing very much. Thank you xxx

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